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Leigh Montville
March 18, 1996
The Olympic swim trials were awash in courage, controversy and comebacks
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March 18, 1996

Making A Splash

The Olympic swim trials were awash in courage, controversy and comebacks

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The shoulders were acting up again. That was Kristine Quance's biggest worry. She had had rotator-cuff problems, same as some big league pitchers, for most of 1994 and half of '95. The pain had subsided last August, much to her relief. Three weeks ago it returned. Just a hint. A touch.

"Not now," she told her shoulders.

"Please, not now," she repeated, asking in a nicer way.

These were the trials for the 1996 U.S. Olympic swimming team—the one chance of a lifetime, if you wanted to get dramatic—and what happened last week in the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis would color an entire career. You swam, did you? Did you swim in the Olympics? These seven fretful days and nights would determine the answers to questions you would be hearing for the rest of your life.

Four years ago Quance, then a high school junior in Northridge, Calif., and now a 20-year-old junior at Southern Cal, had tasted the fickleness of the selection process. When the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials arrived at this same pool, she had been weakened by a six-month case of mononucleosis, from which she was just recovering. She finished seventh in the 100-meter breaststroke and third in the 200 breast, one spot and one second away from making the team. What would she have done without mono? Would she have been a second faster? She would never know. She jumped into the diving pool and cried and cried.

Now, the shoulder. The pain was a tease. Some days it would visit. Some days it would disappear. What would happen when she arrived here? She was relieved on the first morning of the meet, the day of the 400-meter individual medley, that the pain seemed to be gone. The 400 individual medley, she thought, was her best event. All she had to do now was swim her brains out.

She swam her brains out. In the morning qualifying heat, she swam faster than she had ever swum in a qualifier, finishing in 4:42.28, more than four seconds faster than Allison Wagner, the next-fastest swimmer. Not only that, she swam easily, as easily as she had ever swum. There was a moment of unadulterated exhilaration. "For however many seconds, that was as good as I can feel," she said. "Then...everything, like, came crashing down. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined what happened."

She was disqualified on a technicality. A judge picked out an illegal turn from the backstroke to the breaststroke, a hairline call on a rule that Quance said she did not know existed. Her disbelief, joined by the disbelief of USC coach Mark Schubert, led to an appeal. Three judges watched the replay. Sure enough, the tape showed that in violation of the rules, Quance had not fully rotated her body from a faceup backstroke position to a facedown breast-stroke position before she came out of the turn; instead, her body was sideways as she propelled herself off the pool wall. The appeal was rejected. She did not qualify for the final. Richard Quick of Stanford, who will coach the U.S. women swimmers at the Games in Atlanta this summer, was disheartened. "There's such a thing in basketball as the no-call," he said incontrovertibly. "This was the perfect place for a no-call. What happened here very well could cost us a medal."

Quance cried. She spent the afternoon with family and friends and, most of all, USC teammates, who gave her sympathy, but every time she had a moment alone, she cried some more. She was still entered in the 200 individual medley, the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, and the 200 butterfly, but her best event was gone. What could happen the rest of the way?

"We were riding over to watch the 400 IM final that night in a car, and someone was talking about a girl, a runner, who jumped off a bridge after not qualifying for the Olympics," Quance said. "I said from the backseat, 'So, where's the bridge?' My coach told me to sit right there with him."

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